Every day, the telephone answering machine in bell hooks‘ New York apartment is jammed with messages—not just from her academic colleagues and the publishers who bring out her incisive and complex books on race, sexism, creativity, and community, but also from her mother, brothers, and sisters, asking for her help with church projects, planning get-togethers, gossiping.
“The working-class black Southern Christian culture I come from still nurtures me, and I mean directly, daily,” says this practicing Buddhist intellectual, whose writings employ the vision and vocabulary of cutting-edge “postmodern” thought. But, of course, hooks‘ postmodernism is of a special kind. In books like Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990) and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representation (1994), she looks at issues in postmodern style, through many lenses at once—seeing the sexism in racism, the role of media stereotypes in both, the intricate relationships between all three and “the practice of domination.” And she is as hostile as any French intellectual to the idea that the human being can be pinned down as “mainly” a woman, an African-American, or anything else.
Yet the point of all this complexity isn‘t to fascinate hip theory-heads; it’s to tell the truth and win freedom. “Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities,” she says, “then you see that people can change and there is hope.”
And for a microscopic analyst of America’s racial pain, she‘s a remarkably hopeful woman. “These days I wonder more and more why people are pessimistic when American history actually supports optimism,” she says. “Watching [the civil rights-era documentary] Eyes on the Prize recently, I felt it again—people‘s capacity to change is so great.”
Still, there are roadblocks in the way, and hooks‘ ways of removing them are characteristically holistic and healing. “First,” she says, “you can only realize change if you live simply. Once people want enormous excess, you can hardly do social change. And then, you have to repudiate not just what harms you personally—for blacks, racism; for women, sexism—but all the interlinked oppressive structures that hurt everybody.”
The basis of that repudiation is love and care for the planet. “First, you need to cherish, protect, and make life possible,” she says, “and then work your way back to all the other issues.”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s “engaged Buddhism” offers her “a concrete practice. For years we all went to therapy and talked all the time; I’m glad to end all that telling and feel I‘m doing something.” But it‘s as the daughter of working-class black Southern Christian culture that she declares: “I want to see people return to a cultural understanding of the transformative power of love.”